Energy drinks – non-alcoholic fizzy drinks containing caffeine, taurine (an amino acid) and sugar – have been popular for more than 20 years now, particularly among young people. They are often advertised as ‘sports drinks’.
Although there is probably nobody who would consider these drinks healthy, many do not realise how harmful they are. Only last year, a local case made the headlines in Southend-on-Sea when a 28-year old man suffered a heart attack after the consumption of 2 litres of an energy drink in one day. Sadly, this is not an isolated case.
In 2014, the World Health Organisation issued a review on the effects of energy drinks. The list of possible health risks:
- caffeine overdose (symptoms can be insomnia, palpitations, high blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, convulsions, and in some cases even death)
- obesity – ironic, considering that energy drinks are touted as ‘sports drinks’
- diabetes type 2
- late miscarriages, low birthweight and stillbirths
- neurological and cardiovascular symptoms in children and adolescents
- risky behaviour (particularly when combined with alcohol)
- poor dental health
- addiction to energy drinks and increased likelihood to become addicted to other substances (e. g. nicotine, alcohol and marihuana)
The risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes could be attributed to the sugar content alone: Energy drinks contain between 25 and 33 g of sugar per 250 ml can, which can be more than ‘regular’ soft drinks. This in itself would send blood sugar and thus insulin levels soaring. As if that wasn’t enough, the combination of sugar with caffeine is going to make this even worse, as caffeine causes blood glucose levels to rise three times higher than sugar would on its own – this is something you may also want to think about if you drink cola. Furthermore, caffeine impairs the action of insulin, with the result that blood sugar levels remain high for longer. Sugar (glucose) circulating in the blood stream causes cell damage and promotes inflammation – which is why insulin is required to bring it down. If insulin sensitivity is impaired, the hormone will also uselessly circulate the body, unable to act, and excess insulin, too, is pro-inflammatory.
Do these drinks give you energy? They do, but it’s short-lived. Eventually, your blood sugar levels will come crashing down, this time falling too low, with the result that you will feel cranky, or tired, or unable to concentrate – or all of the above - and get sugar cravings. You are now more likely to reach for sugary food or even the next energy drink.
The WHO review points out that energy drinks are addictive. Both sugar and caffeine use the same pathways as certain neurotransmitters that make us feel good, just as recreational drugs do. And just as happens with recreational drugs, you will find that as your body gets used to your daily dose, it fails to create the effect you have become accustomed to and need to increase the dose, craving your next fix sooner.
Are you addicted to energy drinks?
If that sounds familiar, it is time to think about quitting. Even one energy drink per day is too much: Just one soft drink – including energy drinks – per day increases the risk of diabetes in both children and adults. It’s just not worth it.
Now, if you’re able to just stop without side effects: Good for you! But most people find that very hard. Unfortunately, you are dealing with two addictive substances: sugar as well as caffeine. Withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, tremors, mood swings, tiredness are very likely, making it hard to resist finding relief in another energy drink. So, what to do?
Balance your blood sugar levels
By changing your diet, you can considerably reduce sugar cravings. It’s not just about not drinking energy drinks, you’ll need to also consider other sugary and carbohydrate rich foods and drinks. I have written about how to balance blood sugar before. To begin with, I would recommend continuing to have some caffeine and to tackle the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal (headaches) later, but make sure that your tea or coffee is sugar-free.
To balance blood glucose, you’ll need to have protein with every meal. Choose good quality, unprocessed protein foods, such as meat (not sausages, salami, chorizo etc. as that is processed), fish, eggs, full-fat organic dairy, beans and pulses, tofu, hummus, nuts and seeds. The building blocks of protein are amino acids, and you’ll need those to make neurotransmitters that can restore the balance of your brain chemistry.
60% of the human brain consists of fat. For optimum brain health, it is particularly important that you consume essential fatty acids: omega-6 and omega-3 fats. The body cannot synthesize those, they have to come from the diet. Most of us have plenty of omega-6 (too much, in fact) in our diet, but rarely enough omega-3. For more on omega-3 fats, click here.
Once you have your sugar cravings under control, it is time to reduce caffeine. Halve your caffeine intake every day, finishing off with green tea, which has some, but only very little caffeine. Tapering your caffeine intake helps avoid the withdrawal effects, mainly headaches.
If you find that you still struggle with the addiction to energy drinks, there are a number of further interventions that can help, not least supplements. However, I do not usually give general advice on supplements. They can interfere with medications and should be carefully considered and adjusted on an individual basis. If you feel that you need some extra help to come off energy drinks, contact a registered nutritional therapist (CNHC), who will be able to further advise you and help with supplements that are right for you.